So, I don’t know if you noticed, but October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. You must have noticed. There’s pink everywhere. This morning at the grocery store, I saw mushrooms for sale in a pink container. Why pink? Presumably Continental Mushroom donates some money from the sale of mushrooms in the pink packages to the Breast Cancer Society of Canada. However, while the packaging is covered with images of pink ribbons and the name of the Breast Cancer Society, there’s no indication of how much money actually goes to the Society. And it’s worth noting that the Breast Cancer Society is not the same as the much-larger Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. As far as I can tell, the Society is a body that is focused on corporate donations. Their website boasts of “A mutually beneficial partnership.” Um, that’s not really the definition of charitable giving. The Foundation is the much better-known and more reputable organization. If I’m going to give to breast cancer prevention or awareness, I’d prefer my money go to the Foundation.
Is there anyone over the age of 30 in North America who hasn’t been touched by breast cancer somehow? A few years ago, two of my good friends, part of a group of friends who have been together for ten years, were diagnosed with breast cancer within the same month. Our group is spread across North America – we couldn’t do much for our friends but share our love and good wishes, but everyone wanted to do something more concrete. We decided to make them each a quilt, and I volunteered to do the sewing. From all over North America, pieces of fabric and good wishes came pouring into my house. I stitched them together to make a lap quilt for each woman, often working through tears. These little pieces of fabric held such love and concern for our friends. The quilts didn’t seem like enough. I wanted to make magic talismans that would keep death away, but of course that was beyond my power. Fortunately, both friends survived and my worst fears – that the quilts would be handed down to their sons – were not realized. I truly hope that by the time their sons get those quilts, they are worn to shreds by decades of hard use.
You’d think I would be supportive of Pinktober, but somehow it irritates me. It’s too cutesy. I don’t think I should Shop for the Cure. I don’t want pink kitchen appliances, pink toilet paper, a pink ice scraper, or a pink post-it dispenser shaped like a purse. If I was a breast cancer survivor I think I would want to stay in bed with the blankets over my head for the entire month of October. How horrible, to be constantly ambushed with cutesy reminders of such a difficult and painful experience. Do companies colour their packaging brown to show their support for colo-rectal cancers? The pink marketing is such a cutesy reminder of something so horrible, and I find it callous that our society thinks it’s acceptable to be so thoughtless towards people who have been affected by breast cancer.
In fact, I think this callous attitude is indicative of how our society treats women in general. Women who have survived breast cancer are supposed to be grateful for the intervention of modern medicine. They’re supposed to be happy to see pink everywhere in the month of Pinktober. They’re supposed to be excited to go to the dragon boat festival or Run for the Cure and put on a tiara to celebrate their survival. Pat, pat on the head, dear. Aren’t you so happy? Don’t you think breast cancer was a blessing? Don’t you want to put on makeup and a pink wig and celebrate? As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in her book Bright-Sided, women with cancer are infantalized, patronized, and expected to be docile, optimistic, and grateful at all times. There’s no room for anger, bitterness, or unhappiness at having to cope with a serious, difficult, and sometimes fatal disease. I don’t see men who have survived prostate cancer being treated in this way. We don’t sell yogurt containers with pictures of balls on the top, or expect men to run 5K while dressed in special semen-coloured clothes.
If there was some indication of how much money is being raised by all this effort, or where the money is going, perhaps it would be different. My mushroom container (yes, I bought them, there were no other mushrooms in the store and I need them for Thanksgiving dinner later this week) does not say how much money, if any, will be donated to the Breast Cancer Society. The Breast Cancer Society webpage is equally uninformative. The Breast Cancer Foundation website is somewhat more informative about some products. Some companies, at least are forthcoming with information about how much money they will donate, what their donation cap is. Other companies – not so much. For example, I know that if I buy a package of three pink Penn tennis balls, 50 cents will be donated to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. Apparently I can also support the Foundation by buying a K2 snowboard – but will buying a snowboard give more money to Breast Cancer than buying tennis balls? Who knows? K2 doesn’t say how much they give.
I’m not against giving to organizations that support women who have breast cancer, that work to prevent or fund research to cure breast cancer, or provide education about breast cancer. I just think we should all Think Before We Pink, and I think we should ask ourselves if the world really benefits from pink toilet paper. Maybe we should ask companies to just donate to the cause without the cutesy marketing tie-ins. Because I think it is demeaning to women who have had breast cancer, and their loved ones, to treat them this way.